Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Confluence of Images

This week commemorated the 50th anniversary of John F Kennedy's inaugural address, President Dwight Eisenhower's farewell address, and the annual holiday to mark the anniversary of the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

All three persons are connected in multiple layered ways.  Eisenhower was President in 1954 when the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in the Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education that 'separate' is not equal and ordered that the operation of parallel educational systems for blacks and whites cease.   Subsequently he ordered Federal enforcement of integration in Little Rock, Arkansas, and elsewhere when community resistance grew pronounced.  He was President when Rosa Parks was arrested for sitting in a 'whites only' seat on a bus and a little known preacher named King led a boycott against the city run bus system in Montgomery Alabama.

That became a seminal event in the Civil Rights struggle of the 50s and 60s.

While campaigning for President a young Senator, John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, was more involved in attempting to convince voters that a Catholic President would not take direction from the Pope on policy issues than he was involved in the civil rights movement.  Yet when Martin Luther King was jailed without due process, Kennedy's call to Coretta Scott King and assistance in gaining Kings' release helped move many African American voters into his camp during the very close fought election that November.

Both John and his brother Bobby would become more involved in the movement, although reluctantly at times.

With the assistance of the Federal government, Dr. King was able to pursue his dream of a Freedom March on Washington as a symbol of the Civil Rights struggle.  Despite dire predictions of trouble and definite ambivalence on the part of authorities, the March was a huge success with a non violent and joyful celebration by an mixed racial audience of hundreds of thousands in Washington DC.  And this week we celebrated both the life of Dr. King and the words he spoke that day in his "I have a dream" speech.

The words of these three men, although they were unaware of it at the time, remain linked across the ages and continue to have relevance to us today.  Additionally, the actions of these men have influenced the "greatest" and silent generations, the boomers, the rockers and disco fans, the "gen xers" and beyond to the current era. Although I never heard Eisenhower or Dr. King, I did stand in the snow on the Capitol grounds and get to hear Kennedy's inaugural address where he spoke of new ideas and new service and gave a call to the nation to ask what we could do for our country.   Many of us were excited about the Peace Corps that came from that day and proposed Civil Rights legislation, started during the Eisenhower years, which became law under Lyndon Johnson after Kennedy was assassinated.

Susan Eisenhower wrote recently in the Washington Post about her grandfather's farewell address in which he warned against the "military-industrial complex."  His words were heard but not heeded.  He spoke of how we had gone to war with civilians producing tanks and guns as our car factories and machine shops were converted from domestic uses to serve the war efforts.  But in the 50s we developed the industries of war and produced cars and tanks, airplanes and bombers and grew a defense industry.  This industry once created, needed to be kept busy and a reason for a war machine and a permanent military was created.  We began to export war machines to other countries and a trade relationship and arms race ensued.  The way to be promoted in the military is to excel in war.  Should we not instead honor those who prevent war?  We have not listened to his warnings.

Kennedy's Peace Corps has lasted through the ages and his first Director, Sargent Shriver was just laid to rest at the age of 95. But the promise and trust of the Peace Corps efforts, as many generations of Americans who went into the world to make the lives of those in poorer countries better were cheered, was later counter balanced by US support for dictators and against freedom efforts in many places.  Our export of ideals is not welcomed as freely today.

Thousands joined Dr. King in the 60s as various groups held sit-ins, voter registration drives and marches for equality, especially in the South.   But after he won the Nobel Peace Prize and spoke out against the Viet Nam War, and spoke up for the rights of workers, fair housing and poor people, some turned away.  But his rules of non-violence and words of peace held true whether in Skokie or Memphis where he met with an assassin's bullet.

So this week we remember and we celebrate three intertwined lives.  It is time to re-read their words and to reemphasize some of their themes.  Do we have peace, justice and equality in the world?  Have we moved into a post racial, non violent brotherhood?  Do we each give service to our country, our county, our neighborhood?  Can we each work to make this a better world for all?

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